Birdman: Writing A Screenplay Is Like Writing a Poem
By Jacob Krueger
There is a saying in poetry that form should equal function. Meaning that the form your poem takes should reflect the effect that that poem is intended to create in the audience. And writing a screenplay is a lot like writing a poem.
In writing a screenplay, every line matters in the same way that every line matters when you are writing a poem. Every single word can not only affect the experience of reading or watching a movie, but every single word can also affect your budget when it comes time to shoot your movie. So, as screenwriters we need to be as exacting with our words as a poet.
Screenwriting is also like poetry in that we are working within a form – an existing form. And we are finding our creativity inside of a form, or inside of a structure, just like a poet finds the form inside of a sonnet or a villanelle.
Screenwriting is like poetry because screenwriting is a field in which form equals function.
It’s a field in which the ways that we follow the rules or the ways that we break the rules need to grow organically out of the thing that the screenplay is intending to accomplish, the feeling it is intending to create, the story it is intending to tell.
This is the big difference between the approach of Birdman and that of other movies that attempted to break the rules with less success. For example, the last movie that tried to tell a whole story in one continuous shot was a film called Russian Ark. And the result, though technically extraordinary, was about as exciting as watching paint dry. The screenwriter of that script began with a gimmick and then figured out a story that they could tell within that gimmick, just like many aspiring screenwriters begin with a gimmick or a formulaic structure – something that they read in a book or stole from another movie – and then try to force the story that they are telling into that form.
And what I’d like to suggest to you is that whether you are following the rules or breaking them (later I’ll discuss how Birdman does a little bit of both), the places that you follow and the places that you break from the rules should, in fact, grow organically out of the function of your storytelling or out of the intention of your storytelling. In other words, instead of allowing the rules to define you or the rules to define your story, you can allow your story to define the rules it needs to tell itself.
Just like a poet, you can allow your story to reveal itself to you. And in the process of revealing itself to you, you can allow your story to teach you the rules you’re going to need in order to bring that story to the page and to the screen in the most powerful way possible.
Birdman did not begin with some fancy pants director saying, “let’s figure out a cool gimmick that nobody has ever done before.” Birdman began with an observation by writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His observation was that life doesn’t happen in cuts. Life doesn’t feel like cuts.
Instead, he wanted to make a movie that felt more like life. He wanted to make a movie that felt more like one thing flowing into the next, flowing into the next, flowing into the next…. He wanted to make a movie that felt cyclical, that felt like it didn’t have clear borders because our lives and our memories don’t have clear borders.
The rule-breaking of Birdman did not originate with an artist’s desire to prove that he can do something that nobody else has done.
It began with an artist’s desire to express something true that he perceived about the world. And everything grew out of that.
Like many artists, when Iñárritu presented this idea to his collaborators – the writers who were going to work with him, the cinematographers who were going to work with him – they all basically told him the same thing: “Alejandro, that is impossible. You can’t do that.”
But Iñárritu knew that form equals function. He knew that form grows out of function and that this form was necessary in order to tell the story that he wanted to tell. So, he did something that we can all do as screenwriters when we are trying to do something that breaks the rules, when we are trying to do something that requires breaking the rules or that requires doing something that feels problematic or wrong. He ran right at that terrifying idea. He ran right at that thing that wasn’t supposed to work and he made that thing the centerpiece of the story. And because it grew from a natural observation, he created something that did not feel like an externally applied idea. Instead, it felt effortless.
Now, there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into making something feel effortless. This team worked for almost two years on the script for Birdman. And knowing the technical challenges involved, they left nothing for the editing room. They tried to solve every problem of every cut right there on the page. They left nothing to be figured out later because they knew that they wouldn’t have the same freedom that most filmmakers have to move things around and save things in the editing room.
Iñárritu’s example is something I’d like you to consider as a screenwriter as well, especially if you’re an emerging screenwriter – if you’re not famous yet, if people don’t know you and believe in you yet. I’d encourage you to put the same kind of love and thought into your screenplay that Iñárritu and his team put into theirs.
When you’re an emerging writer you can’t just write professionally. You have to write better than the professionals.
And the reason you have to write better than the professionals is that the professionals have existing contacts. They have friends in the industry, people they worked with before, people who believe in them just like your teachers or your writing group or your friends believe in you. They have people that they have made money for in the past. They have people that they collaborated with in the past, people to whom they can say, “Trust me. This is going to work.”
As a young screenwriter you don’t have that. As an emerging screenwriter you don’t have that. You don’t have the proof that this can work. You don’t have the history to back yourself up. That means you need to write better than the professionals.
You can’t deliver a script that’s pretty good or that can get figured out in the editing room or in a rewrite. You‘ve got to present a script that any reader can look at and see on the little movie screen in their head.
You need a script that you don’t have to be a brilliant reader to visualize. You need a script that anybody can read and easily imagine even if they are not an expert, even if they are just a coverage reader (which is often the way of saying an intern or a college student or an aspiring writer). Even if they are a producer, which is another way of saying a sales person or a business executive. Even if they are a person that is not an expert in developing screenplays, you need to write your script so that every cut, every moment, is so perfectly placed, so carefully visualized and realized on the page that anyone who reads it will immediately know: “Yes, I know this can to work. I know this can work because I saw it and I felt it and I imagined it and I heard it play on a little movie screen in my head as if it were real. I know it work because I’ve already seen it happen in my mind.”
There is a second reason why you want to write better than the professionals.
There is a second reason why you want to turn in a script that is as carefully executed as Birdman, in which you could shoot the images exactly as they are written down, exactly in the order that they are shot, cut them together in exactly the way they are imagined and end up with a movie that does what you needed to do.
And that reason is that although you certainly hope that you are going to end up with a great director, chances are that you won’t. If you are producing your own movie the chances are you don’t have the money to hire a big time director who has directed 50 movies. You probably have the money to hire a talented young director, who is likely to have a great gift but makes a lot of mistakes. Or maybe you are directing your own movie. If you are directing your own movie, then you have got to trust that you’re going to have a lot of blind spots and that you are going to be making a lot of mistakes and that, in the heat of production, a lot of things are going to go wrong.
So if you are working in the Indie world, then you need to know that taking that few months or even an extra year to get the script perfect is not only going to make it easier for you when it comes to fundraising or sending the script to talent and getting them attached or getting an investor to plop down that extra little bit of money because they believe in the project. It’s also going to save you millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, depending on your budget, when it comes to shooting.
There is a famous story about the Coen brothers. When they were shooting Raising Arizona they had basically storyboarded every single shot before they ever went into production. They had storyboarded everything exactly the way they wanted it. And Nicolas Cage came onto the project and he had tons of suggestions. And a lot of them, honestly, were probably pretty good suggestions. And, to this day, he’s still a little bit annoyed (at least in interviews) that the Coen brothers didn’t take any of his suggestions – except for the messed up hair.
But the reason they didn’t take his suggestions was because they knew that in order to bring in their script on budget they couldn’t be ad-libbing. They had a very small amount of money to work with and that meant they needed to imagine everything in advance because they knew one step in the wrong direction and things could very quickly get out of control.
When you’re a young writer and you don’t have the experience of the Coen brothers, you need to take that even more to heart. The more you figure things out on the page, the more on-time, under budget, and likely your movie is to actually work by the time you get to the editing room. When you’re a young writer you don’t have the money to fix it in post. It costs so much less money to fix it on the page.
For those of you who are interested in working in the studio system or selling that big budget movie, doing this work becomes even more important. Working with the precision of a poet becomes even more important because the studio is going to screw up your movie if they can. And they are going to blame you for it.
And the more you give them a chance to imagine things themselves – to come up with their own image instead of using yours – the more likely it is that your movie is not going to work.
When you work on a big studio movie there are going to be dozens of people shouting notes at you and asking for changes. There are going to be huge stars and huge directors involved, coming with their own opinions. They are all going to have ideas about how to fix the things that don’t work. And in that cognitive dissonance comes a mess that is likely to sidetrack your project, likely to keep it from production or, if it does get produced, likely to change it into something that you barely recognize.
The more of these problems that you solve on your own – on the page when it’s cheap rather than in production when it’s expensive – the more likely it is that your movie is going to get made. And the more likely it is that your movie, when made, is going to reflect what you wrote.
I want to encourage you to think about your writing like a poet does.
I want to encourage you to think about the virtue of each line and the importance of each line.
Like the writers of Birdman, I want you to think about the value of each moment and the storytelling of each moment as it juxtaposes with every other moment. I want you to play the action that you’ve written down on the page in the little movie screen in your mind and ask yourself if it’s hard for you to visualize or easy? And, when you visualize it, are you visualizing it in a specific, cool way that the director could shoot? Or are you visualizing it in a boring or general way that’s going to take another artist of your level of talent and capability in order to shape?
I want you to read your script out loud to yourself and ask yourself: is every line of dialogue worthy of a poem? Is every action worthy of speaking? Are they places where I find myself skipping over lines that I’ve written or are there pages that I come to where I find I don’t want to read that whole dense page?
I want you to think about your script like a poem. And I want you to shape that poem until every line does matter and until every cut does matter.
And when it comes to the structure of your movie, I want you to allow form to be function rather than imposing the rules you’ve learned in books, classes, seminars, lectures, or from your writing groups or more experienced writers. Rather than thinking in relation to or reaction to rules, I want you to think about the movie you want to tell.
The reason that Birdman feels effortless is because it grows out of something real.
It grows out of the feeling that life doesn’t have cuts. It grows out of a feeling that anybody who has worked in film production or in theater has already experienced. It grows out of that feeling of doing the same thing again and again and again; that feeling of one day floating into the next as you work hundred of hours toward something that matters to you, wondering if it matters to everybody else. It’s those feelings of ego and self-doubt that are present in every single person on every single production.
If you’ve had the experience of working in production and theater and film, you already know what this feel is like. You know that, rather than imposing some kind of gimmick or idea, all that Iñárritu did was conjure that exact feeling with his structure. In doing so, Iñárritu broke almost every rule of screenwriting. And, at the same time, he almost followed almost every rule of screenwriting.
Yes, it is true that screenwriting is supposed to be about the cuts. The cut is supposed to be our most powerful tool and here is a movie with no cuts. Yes, it is true that screenplays are not supposed to have long, long, long, long, long, scenes that flow into one another. They are not supposed to have plays within plays. They are not supposed to have unity of location and space like this piece does.
In fact, many people would have looked at this script and said, “Hey, Alejandro, maybe it’s a play.”
But it’s not a play. It’s a movie. It’s a movie that conjures the feeling of making a play. It’s a movie that conjures the feeling of trying to do something great and doubting whether we have the ability to do it.
At the same time, in order to get away with breaking rule, after rule, after rule, Iñárritu and his team of writers go back to one of the most basic and simple rules we see in almost every screenplay. And that is to make sure your character wants something. Make sure they want it really badly. Make sure they would do pretty much anything to get it. And then make it as hard as possible to get.
And if you think about that in Birdman you will realize that, despite all the places that it breaks the rules, Birdman follows that rule too to a T.
The main character played by Michael Keaton wants only one thing. He wants to make a great play. And he has mixed reasons for it. A big part of it is ego. Another big part is trying to undo the mistakes he feels he has made. He wants to get back to the way he felt as that young boy who got that little note from Raymond Carver. It’s his attempt to regain his true voice after feeling like he spent his lifetime selling out. All he wants to do is create the play.
And let’s just think about all the obstacles that face him.
In the very first scene, he has got a terrible actor that he has made the mistake of casting. He’s got financial problems. He’s got a possible lawsuit when the light falls on that actor’s head. Then, even his salvation turns out to be a double-edged sword because the Ed Norton character, while a brilliant actor, is also a playing mind game of his own.
He‘s got a daughter with whom he has very little relationship, with a long history of drug problems, telling him that he doesn’t matter, that nothing that he is doing matters and that nobody cares.
He’s got a theater critic who is promising him that she is going to destroy his play even though she’s never even seen it.
And, on top of all of this, he’s got an inner demon that he does not know how to banish.
This is the last concept that I want to let you with: the concept of externalizing the internal.
The Michael Keaton character in Birdman is haunted. His biggest enemy is internal. But, in movies, internal obstacles are very hard to see. So, what Iñárritu does is follow a simple rule, another rule that we have seen a million times. And that simple rule is: if you’ve got something internal, find the way to externalize it.
And if you’ve seen Birdman you already know what I’m talking about. This invisible, self-destructive thing called the ego is externalized – taken outside of the main character – and turned into a character that the Michael Keaton character can interact with.
The character of the Birdman encapsulates all his self-doubt, all the ways that he tears himself down as an artist, all the ways that he tries to sell out. But it also captures all of his desire just to be famous again, to stop trying so hard to do something with meaning and just sell out and get rich and be the object of adoration that he used to be. You can see how these internal feelings are taken outside of him. And you can see that these are internal feelings that we all have as writers.
All of us, as writers, have these two different sides of ourselves. There is the part of us that wants to become the artist, to do something that matters, something real. And there is that egoistic part of us that wants to get to the finish line, sell out, make a lot of money, get famous, change our lives, have it easy. The part of us that’s trying to do something so very hard, simply getting our own personal truth onto the screen, not even knowing if it’s good or bad. And the part of us that wants to be a success. And if you’ve seen Birdman, you know the inner turmoil that that can cause. And if you’re a writer, you know that inner turmoil as well.
The Michael Keaton character in Birdman never finds a way to reconcile the part of himself that’s an artist with the part of himself that wants to succeed. In fact, even when he does succeed – totally in spite of himself – his ego still cannot ever get enough. His ego still can’t even recognize the success.
But I want to suggest to you, as a writer, that maybe there is room for both. As screenwriters, we do need to strike that balance between the part of ourselves that wants to say something authentic and the part that needs to succeed. We also need to strike that balance between writing the movie that’s in our hearts and shaping into a form that other people can understand.
Both our form and our function can work together to accomplish that goal to tell a true story in a true way, in a way that other people can connect to. And in a way that can get people in seats to see the story you’re trying to tell.
This means taking a three-pronged approach to your writing:
- Knowing when you need to focus exclusively on the art of getting that powerful, raw material in your heart onto the page.
- Knowing when to fuse that art with the craft, the tools, the structure, and (sometimes even) the rules you need in order to translate that raw material into something that the audience can understand.
- Knowing when to focus on the technical skills and the craft that it takes to get that story on the page in its perfect poetic form.
For those of you who have studied with me at The Studio, you know that we try to build around that three-pronged approach with our Meditative Writing Class (focusing exclusively on developing your voice as an artist), our Write Your Screenplay Workshop (fusing art and craft in order to shape that material and build the rules you need for your screenplay), and finally with our Craft Intensive (building the technical skills you need in order to get your writing onto the page in its most poetic form).
What’s important to understand, for all writers, is that all writing does go through these multiple phases. The way we need to build a poem is not by starting with the form and forcing the poem in. Instead, you need to start with that raw essence and then find the perfect form to deliver your story.